“Choosing to live is an act of defiance, a form of heroism.”
I would like to preface this review by saying that this is an incredibly difficult book to review and after putting all my thoughts together I still don’t know how to rate it or if I even should. This is such a sensitive time in history but one that we should definitely continue to talk about. This review is my own thoughts only and anything I comment negatively on will be purely a critique of the writing and not the events of the book.
“In April 1942, Lale Sokolov was transported by cattle train to Auschwitz-Birkenau, imprisoned, as were millions of others, for being born Jewish. He was given the task of tattooing numbers onto his fellow victim’s arms to create what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust. Waiting in line, shaking with terror, was a young woman called Gita. For Lale – full of life, even in this place of death – it was love at first sight. And he was determined that not only would he survive, but that Gita would too.
This harrowing story is based on true events. However, I couldn’t help but feel so disconnected from the characters and what they went through while reading, and I think that is due to the matter-of-fact and simplistic writing style. I usually enjoy a simple writing style (without all the unnecessary embellishments) as they are easy to read and follow. However, it was just too simple for me. We were constantly told what was happening or how the characters were feelings in a “he did this”, “she said that” manner. Because of this I was never able to clearly imagine the characters or their surroundings.
I was also surprised by how short this novel is considering it’s heavy subject matter. Being only about 250 pages long, I feel like we were not given the whole story – which is true. The major plot point is the relationship between Lale and Gita and more importantly, Lale’s hope that one day he will be a free man. I think that is such an admirable quality to have given their horrific circumstances. And I think the author did do a good job writing a tale of hope and love amid horrors. But even still, I don’t think you can give merit to the author for good character development since this is a account of real man’s life.
I have seen much criticism that this book is hugely inaccurate about the true events of the Holocaust. I think we need to remember that this does not claim to be a reliable piece of non-fiction work. That is why it is called historical FICTION. In the edition I have, there is an insert between the foreword and the prologue, where the author reiterates that this is a work of fiction based on the first-hand testimony of an Auschwitz survivor. However, I do not know if this was included in the original publication or added as an afterthought once the author began to receive criticism.
I wanted to share a quote I found from another review that sums up my concerns of this book perfectly. “I can’t help but wonder if viewing concentration camps with the rose coloured glasses that Lale seem to wear is damaging to the way some readers will think of the holocaust experience.” Initially, I guessed this book was aimed at young teens due to the writing style but the more I thought about it, the more it didn’t sit right with me. This book was largely focused on the love story and when the atrocities where shown they were quickly brushed over in a few paragraphs. I understand that focusing the whole novel on the disgusting treatment of prisoners and what they had to endure would not be enjoyable at all to read and would be slightly insensitive. However, the author almost makes it seem like none of this happened and they were purely workers – which is just not the case! I truly did love Lale and Gita’s relationship and was amazed at their survival. However, it is only because I am well educated on the topic that I can understand and truly appreciate their story. Their miraculous experience is an anomaly. It is not the normal. Many people in concentration camps across the world did not live to see the outside of the gates ever again which it absolutely heartbreaking to think about but must be addressed. It is wonderful that Lale and Gita got their happy ending that they hoped for all those years in Auschwitz-Birkenau. However, millions didn’t. Some died before they even arrive, millions died in the camps, many attempted to escape but never made it, those who did escape couldn’t survive in the wild, and those who successfully made it home did not had any family left. I understand that they author showed some lightness in a dark period of history but readers would be well educated and aware of this before they read this book.
I am so happy for Lale and Gita and they family they have now build. I am so happy that their story was told. Unfortunately, in my honest opinion I do not think the author did it justice. I would have loved to see this story transformed into a piece of accurate and reliable non-fiction. There are many accounts of WWII history I would recommend you read before this one, nonetheless, I still think this is worth the read to hear Lale and Gita’s story and their miraculous survival.